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updated 12/14/2003 2:54:19 AM ET 2003-12-14T07:54:19

A month before their fateful flight at Kitty Hawk, Orville Wright wrote his father in Dayton, Ohio, instructing him to prepare a press release hailing the success of the world's first flying machine. Wait for a telegram, the letter said, then "notify the papers and the Associated Press."

"It strikes you as out of character -- because they were ordinarily so modest and judicious," said Wright Brothers scholar Gary Bradshaw. "But you can see that by 1903, they had shifted from experiments to proof. They didn't hope it would fly. They had done the work, and they knew it would fly."

On Wednesday, President Bush will travel to Kill Devil Hills, N.C., for the Wright Brothers Centennial celebrations, where at precisely 10:35 a.m., 40,000 onlookers will watch a replica of the brothers' 1903 Flyer try to reenact the 120-foot, 12-second journey that transformed the ancient dream of human flight into a modern commonplace.

For aficionados such as Bradshaw, a Mississippi State University psychologist who studies human creativity and inventiveness, the centennial presents a fresh opportunity to pose again the question of how these two ostensibly simple neighborhood guys from Dayton managed to make history when so many others -- apparently so much better qualified -- faltered.

"There's a tradition in popular culture that genius is somehow the province of special genetics or a freak of nature, and that geniuses are set apart from the normal, everyday person," Bradshaw said. "That doesn't seem to hold very well in light of historical evidence, and the Wright brothers are a classic case in point."

Their secret, said Bradshaw and others, was that whereas many scientists and inventors of the time -- including Thomas Edison -- were primarily trial-and-error tinkerers, the Wrights, for reasons not fully understood even now, had a ruthless ability to chop a scientific challenge into its component parts and systematically find the answers.

"They saw that the airplane was not just one invention but many inventions," said Peter L. Jakab, chairman of aeronautics at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum and author of two books on the Wright brothers. "They figured out how to control roll, they designed the first aerial propellers, and they understood that they had to train themselves to fly."

This last task was not easy: "These aircraft are extremely unstable, and you have to forget everything you know before you try to fly one," said Ken W. Hyde, a retired commercial pilot and founder of the Warrenton-based Wright Experience, which has been researching, building and flying replicas for the past 10 years in preparation for the centennial.

Hyde and his team traveled to North Carolina last week with the organization's 1903 Flyer replica to get ready for the reenactment, scheduled exactly 100 years after Orville Wright flew the original.

On Saturday, centennial organizers chose Kevin Kochersberger, a Rochester Institute of Technology mechanical engineer, to fly Wednesday. He flew the replica more than 100 feet Nov. 20 as "proof of concept."

He was to have flipped a coin with American Airlines pilot Terry Queijo of Trappe, Md., to see who got the first flight, but bad weather curtailed practice. Wilbur won the toss in 1903 but pancaked the Flyer on takeoff in his first attempt Dec. 14, setting Orville up to make history when repairs were completed three days later.

For the temperamental replica, just like the original, success Wednesday is not a sure thing:

"We are still learning some techniques," said Hyde, whose 40 years as a pilot did not prevent him from breaking his arm when he flew a replica of a later model Wright biplane in May. "Back at the beginning, the brothers were teaching guys to fly in three or 31/2 hours of flying time. What I need is 32 hours of instruction from Orville Wright." Hyde is a backup pilot for the Wednesday flight.

The brothers' desire to develop a flying machine appears to have originated in the 1890s with Wilbur, older than Orville by four years. What piqued his interest is not clear. The pair had high school educations and little formal science background beyond what they needed for their chosen profession as bicycle makers.

Bradshaw suggested that Wilbur's interest may have evolved during what was likely a prolonged bout with depression, triggered when a hockey puck knocked out his front teeth as a teenager and turned him into a recluse for more than 10 years.

"He just stayed at home, then took care of his sick mother until she died," Bradshaw said. "At that point he's looking around. He's lost a big piece of his life, and he's thinking, 'What am I going to do?' He was seeing articles about gliding experiments in Europe, and he probably thought, 'Maybe that's it.' " In 1899 Wilbur, with Orville's help, built a kite with two wings whose shape could be altered with a corkscrew motion, like twisting a cardboard box. By changing the wings' wind surface, "wing-warping" enabled the pilot to keep the plane flying on an even keel and prevent it from rolling over: "It was a simple and elegant solution," said the Smithsonian's Jakab, that solved a seemingly intractable problem and put the Wrights ahead of their competitors even before they had built a single aircraft.

Orville, not particularly interested in flying machines at first, nevertheless agreed to help his brother build and test a glider. The pair needed a place with open space, steady wind and the promise of a reasonably soft landing. They chose Kill Devil Hills, near the fishing village of Kitty Hawk, and made their first visit in 1900.

"You had to bring all your own material, because there were no hardware stores or anything," Bradshaw said. This proved troublesome for the Wrights, who could not find a spar long enough to fit their original design's wing-span specifications and had to settle for a stubbier design. Nevertheless, the glider was a success.

"It was close to the best flight that had ever been done," Bradshaw said. But it was not good enough, by a long shot. Orville was nevertheless intrigued, and besides, "it was a nice holiday," Bradshaw said. "There were bears and hawks, and the weather was nice."

The Outer Banks in the early 20th century were windswept and wild, "a sandy barren strip of land" with huge dunes marching across a bleak coastline, said Erin Porter of the National Park Service's Centennial Planning office.

A second trial in 1901went badly. The brothers' new glider did not have the lift they expected. Years later, Orville recalled a funereal train trip home to Dayton that year, quoting Wilbur's opinion that humans would not fly successfully "in 1,000 years."

But they regrouped, concluding correctly that others' calculations of lift and drag were wrong and could be corrected if the brothers made their own instruments and installed them in a tiny wind tunnel, where they could test scale-model wings until they found a design they liked.

"The instruments were very good, but what the Wrights did differently was to dissect a problem and solve it step by step," Bradshaw said. "I have looked at dozens of inventors, and nobody else ever goes after these problems with such a divide-and-conquer strategy."

Instead, most of the Wrights' competitors would "build a design, test it, then build another one and hope for better performance," he added. "Often the new design flew worse than the old one."

In 1899, Wilbur Wright had written the Smithsonian for information, introducing himself as "an enthusiast, not a crank." By 1902 the Wrights were far ahead of anyone else in the field, but the Smithsonian refused to acknowledge their accomplishments and for decades struggled to show the superiority of a design by Samuel Pierpont Langley, a former secretary of the institution. Some European competitors, backed by distinguished academies, would later claim that the upstart Wrights were just "lucky."

Back at Kitty Hawk in 1902, the latest glider used the brothers' enhanced aerodynamic design to fly routinely farther than 500 feet, shattering records up to that time. The Wrights had set the stage for their historic flight a year later.

Many scholars speculate that the close sibling partnership had the effect of focusing the brothers' creativity to a degree far surpassing anything they might have achieved separately: "They often joked about how they liked to scrap with one another," Jakab said, "but they always said they were just 'vigorously working through' their problems."

Also, noted George Larson, editor of Air & Space Smithsonian magazine, the Wrights were largely free of family encumbrances: "Neither of them ever married, and their sister took care of the home front," Larson said. "The boys owed a lot to the fact they could think intensely without distractions."

In 1903 the Wrights scaled up their 1902 Flyer and designed a 200-pound, four-cylinder reciprocating engine and two custom propellers that rotated in opposite directions so they would not torque the aircraft into a roll. The pilot lay on the wing and controlled the wing-warp and rudder from a cradle around his waist. With pilot, the aircraft weighed 750 pounds.

By Nov. 19, 1903, when Orville wrote their father, the brothers were still a bit worried about the strength of the propeller shafts, but if they "stand up, the rest will," Orville said. Older brother Lorin, "our press agent," should be ready.

On Dec. 17, the Wright Flyer, at a cumulative investment of less than $1,000, flew four times, with each brother at the controls twice. In subsequent years the Wrights improved their design, but once their methods became known, their concepts and technology were soon copied and then surpassed. Ailerons worked better than wing-warping to control roll, and elevators on the tail worked better than nose-mounted elevators to control up or down pitch.

"Oftentimes the people who make the initial breakthroughs are not the people who evolve them into an industry," Jakab said. "By 1910, the Wrights weren't the best in the world, but I would argue that they had contributed quite enough."

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